Argonne Converts Corn Into Chemistry

November 06, 1996

ARGONNE, Ill. - Researchers from four Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories, including Argonne National Laboratory, have developed a new process to convert corn into a cost-efficient source of commercial chemicals.

The chemicals produced will be incorporated into polymers and solvents for use in clothing, fibers, paints, inks, food additives, and an array of other industrial and consumer products.

Argonne, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have signed a $7 million agreement with Applied CarboChemicals, a Pennsylvania specialty chemicals company, to develop and commercialize the process.

The new process promises to reduce reliance on imported oil and to expand markets for domestic agriculture. Other advantages include significantly lower costs and reduced waste generation. Developed jointly by the four laboratories, the new process first makes succinic acid by fermenting glucose sugar from corn, then separates and purifies the acid, and finally converts it chemically into 1,2-butanediol, tetrahydrofuran, N-methyl pyrrolidone and other chemicals used to make a wide assortment of products. Existing domestic markets for such chemicals total almost one billion pounds of materials per year at a value of more than $1.3 billion.

The process has been licensed to Applied CarboChemicals, whose president, Eric O'Connor-Donsky, worked closely with the DOE labs. "We are committed,'' O'Connor-Donsky said, "to the transfer of the technology to commercial operations, and this project could serve as a model for government-industry cooperation to achieve immediately viable results."

At Argonne, Mark Donnelly and his colleagues have applied genetic techniques to create a new organism, a mutant of a bacterium that normally produces only small amounts of succinic acid. The mutant produces greater amounts of the acid, and Argonne scientist Shih-Perng Tsai and his group have established an efficient process for purifying the acid from the mixture of materials found in fermentation broths. Argonne has filed for a patent on this new microbe and has already established proprietary position for the separation process.

This project is unique in that it involves the coordinated efforts of researchers at four DOE facilities and Applied CarboChemicals. Each DOE laboratory made significant contributions to the research effort. Argonne scientists improved the microbe and the separation process; NREL scientists analyzed the economics of the process; Pacific Northwest scientists established new chemical catalysts for converting succinic acid to commodity chemicals, and ORNL scientists led the development of an efficient fermentation protocol.

The research is part of DOE's Alternative Feedstocks program, which seeks to create new links between the agricultural community and the chemicals industry through support of research and development that uses crops to produce chemicals.

Potential economic benefits of this and other Alternative Feedstock program efforts include expansion of markets for corn and other domestic renewable feedstocks, improved job security in agricultural and related industries, and significant energy savings. Analyses indicate that a single combined biological/chemical plant could save the energy equivalent to that required to heat 80,000 single-family homes for a year, conserving valuable petroleum resources.

The research is funded by DOE's Office of Industrial Technology, Alternative Feedstocks program. Funding is also provided through the cooperative research and development agreement with Applied CarboChemicals.

With more than 200 research projects and an annual operating budget of approximately $500 million, Argonne National Laboratory is one of the largest federal research facilities in the country. Argonne is operated by the University of Chicago as a part of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Laboratory System.

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DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

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